Our dogs’ paw preferences provide insight beyond knowing which paw is used to steady a Kong. Batt et al. (2009) reported that being right-pawed was associated with lower arousal and calmer responses to novel stimuli and strangers. Schneider et al. (2013) found that dogs who were left-pawed exhibited more stranger-directed aggression than dogs who were either right-pawed or ambilateral. Many potential guide dogs fail their training—usually for behavioral reasons—and Tomkins et al. (2012) documented higher success rates of right-pawed than left-pawed dogs in training programs.
Strength of Lateralization
In addition to the effects of paw preference on emotions and behavior, the strength of those preferences also has an effect. Branson and Rogers (2006) demonstrated that dogs without a paw preference were more reactive to loud noises than dogs with a paw preference.
Batt et al. (2009) showed that dogs with stronger paw preferences were bolder and less cautious than dogs with weaker paw preferences. They were more confident, less prone to arousal and anxiety, quicker to relax or become playful in new environments, and exhibited calmer responses to novel stimuli and strangers. It turns out that we humans are similar to our best friends in this regard: People with weak hand preferences are more likely to suffer high anxiety levels and are more susceptible to both PTSD and psychosis than those with a strong handedness.
Just as being right-pawed predicted guide-dog training success, dogs with a strong lateralization (either left or right) and a low rate of using both paws in the Kong test fared better in these programs (Batt et al. 2008). The authors hypothesize that this may be because strongly lateralized and right-pawed dogs are less likely to experience high reactivity and distress responses, which are detrimental to success as a guide dog.
In studies of sensory processes and lateralization (Siniscalchi et al. 2008, 2010), dogs were simultaneously presented with identical stimuli on both their left and right sides while eating from a bowl. The direction in which they turned their heads indicated which side of the brain was involved in processing and responding to the stimulus, revealing the dogs’ emotional reaction to it. Dogs consistently turned to the right (involving the emotionally positive left-brain hemisphere) in response to the social cues of canine isolation or disturbance calls and canine play vocalizations, but tended to turn left (showing the activation of the emotionally negative right-brain hemisphere) when they heard thunder.
Dogs also turned left in response to images of cats and snakes but not to images of dogs. With repeated presentations, there was a change toward right-turning behavior, indicating that the left side of the brain and its associated positive emotions were involved. This suggests that novelty may be a factor in fear and other intense negative emotions that tend to be processed by the right side of the brain.
To understand the role of lateralization in processing olfactory stimuli, it is essential to know that each side of the brain processes the information received on the same side: the right nostril goes to the right hemisphere, the left nostril goes to the left hemisphere. Dogs started to sniff novel but non-aversive stimuli (food, lemon, dog secretions) with their right nostril and then shifted with repetition to using their left nostril, showing a change from negative to positive emotions. When presented with adrenaline and sweat from their vets (really!), dogs demonstrated a consistent bias toward the right nostril, suggesting that their emotions started, and remained, negative in response to these odors (Siniscalchi et al. 2011).